Southern Lights | The BJP's gambit depends on caste after all | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Southern Lights | The BJP's gambit depends on caste after all

Apr 17, 2024 11:08 PM IST

In Kerala and TN, marginalised castes account for more than 75% of the population. Are they willing the BJP as a major political player?

Kerala and Tamil Nadu’s voting patterns in the upcoming general election will be a key litmus test to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) subaltern Hindutva strategy in the two southern states where it has a negligible presence. The outcome will determine if the marginalised Hindu castes that account for more than 75% of the population are willing to consider the BJP as a major political player.

**EDS: IMAGE VIA @narendramodi** Alathur: BJP supporters during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's public meeting, ahead of Lok Sabha elections, in Alathur, Kerala, Monday, April 15, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI04_15_2024_000170B)(PTI) PREMIUM
**EDS: IMAGE VIA @narendramodi** Alathur: BJP supporters during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's public meeting, ahead of Lok Sabha elections, in Alathur, Kerala, Monday, April 15, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI04_15_2024_000170B)(PTI)

“It will hold a mirror up to check if the BJP has supplied a real want by catering to the asks of the electorate belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs),” said Prof G Gopakumar, a psephologist and former vice chancellor, Central University of Kerala. The votes of these communities are crucial for the party to get its foot in the door in both these states.

Subaltern Hindutva includes the socially marginalised as part of a sociocultural narrative and political calculation — this has also been an answer to the BJP’s knotty problem in the five southern states, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. To shake off its perception as a party of predominantly upper castes and to win the trust of the economic underclass, the BJP has adopted two measures in both these states, a senior Kerala BJP party leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

“We have adopted a policy of diversity in ticket distribution. We have ensured that a majority of tickets have been to candidates from OBCs and SC/STs, and secondly, we have appointed able candidates to top political positions within the state,” the party leader added. 

Kerala BJP President K Surendran belongs to the Eezhava caste, classified as a sub-sect of the OBCs, and K Annamalai, Tamil Nadu BJP President is a Gounder, also a sub-category of the OBCs. In neither state, has the BJP given a ticket to a person of Brahmin caste, and more than 80% of the 20 seats in Kerala and 39 in Tamil Nadu, putting up candidates from the OBC, SC, and ST communities. The other 20% of the seats have been given to Christians, Muslims, and linguistic minorities, with just a handful of seats given to candidates belonging to upper castes.

The first brush of success of subaltern Hindutva in southern India came after the BJP’s victories in two civic body elections in 2022. In Karnataka’s Kollegal and Vijayapura’s municipal elections, the BJP put up candidates from the OBCs and SCs. This experiment was successful in helping wean away these from the Congress and the JDS to whom they traditionally belonged.

For the first time in the history of local body elections, the BJP emerged as the winner and the single biggest party in both these cities.

“The BJP is looking to ride a wave of deeper socio-political changes in India. The politics and the organisation of parties such as the Congress have seldom allowed the marginalised communities even the idea of notional power. Hence, the BJP is attempting to inculcate a feeling of inclusiveness,” said Gopakumar.

In Kerala, the BJP has been trying to form a bond with Ezhavas, Acharis (blacksmiths), temple artisans, fishermen, and Dalit Christians for the last two years. The Eezhavas account for 26% of the population and the Acharis and Hindu fishermen account for 4% each. Winning them over is critical to achieving the double-digit tally that the BJP is hoping for.

How the BJP wants to make inroads

Political analysts who have been watching the BJP operate in these states say it has two motives. The first is to deplete the Communist Party-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) of Hindu votes and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) of Christian votes.

The LDF’s vote bank is a storehouse of upper caste and OBC votes with the Congress walking away with a majority of minority votes. This is why support from the Church of South India (CSI) Christians, the Latin Catholics, and the Salvation Army Church-goers is pivotal for the BJP. Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram, Alleppey, and Kollam are where the poorer Christians congregate and cohabit. Of the 16 Christian sects in Kerala, the ones named above do not classify as upper-class Christians. Over 75% of forward caste Christians in Kerala vote for the Congress with a small section of them reserving their affection for the Left. While former defence minister AK Antony’s son Anil Antony has been fielded on a BJP ticket from Pathanamthitta, KS Radhakrishnan, Shoba Surendran, and incumbent minister of state (MoS) for external affairs V Muraleedharan — all OBCs — have been fielded from Ernakulam, Alleppey, and Attingal.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in this area (subaltern Hindutva). Kerala is a society that is polarised when it comes to voting. But for the subaltern castes to vote for the BJP and for the party to win a seat, the candidate needs to secure a minimum of 36-38%,” said Sreejith Panicker, a political commentator from Thiruvananthapuram.

The BJP dispatched defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman at least thrice to strike up a conversation with fishermen in the coastal regions and familiarise them with the BJP’s schemes. She’s visited Vizhinjam and Poonthura often, speaking to the fisherfolk in Tamil, enquiring if the Vishwakarma benefits have been accrued in time. The Pradhan Mantri Vishwakarma Yojana or Scheme is a central sector scheme launched by the Ministry of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises to provide holistic and end-to-end support to artisans by providing access to credit, skill training, and market linkage support to help artisans access more opportunities for growth.

After the cyclone last December BJP state president Annamalai toured Rameshwaram and Kanniyakumari where many Christian and Dalit fishermen live and depend on the sea for their survival. Annamalai travelled in their boats, supped with them at sea, and returned promising an audience with senior ministers in Delhi. It was Nirmala Sitharaman again who promised aid and a few visits to pacify a seething crowd that was beset with many problems including that of Chinese and Lankan trawlers in Indian seas netting the best catch.

“The BJP has improved its narrative. In 2019, there was no message for the OBCs that the AIADMK and BJP alliance represented. But now, the party has shed its image as an untouchable,” said Sri Kumar, a political commentator from Tamil Nadu. According to Sri Kumar, the BJP has achieved caste harmony. This means that if one community is supportive of the BJP, the others do not resent it. This is the beginning of a change of heart, Sri Kumar added. Unlike their former friend Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS), general secretary and leader of the AIADMK who antagonised certain dominant communities, the BJP has been careful.

After party supremo J Jayalalitha died in 2016, EPS pushed V Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dinakaran away from the party. They’re both Mukulathors and their voice matters in southern Tamil Nadu. When he ousted former chief minister and his bete noir O Panneerselvam by gaining control over the party, its symbol, and the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai, the Thevar community that Panneerselvam belongs to was supposedly offended and protested in the general body meetings. It is these votes that the BJP is now looking to corner. Theni, Dharmapuri, Ramanathapuram, Coimbatore, Vellore, and Tirunelveli are where these castes matter. A good performance means grossing more than 10% of Mukulathor - Thevar - Vanniyar votes. “Doing little the BJP has been able to achieve quite a lot by getting their social engineering math right. But for victory, the candidate should be equally strong,” Sri Kumar said.

This is perhaps the party’s biggest drawback in the southern states where its presence and electoral power have been imperceptible.

Tamil Nadu goes to polls in the first phase on April 19, and Kerala goes to polls on April 26. How the backward communities, SCs, and STs vote would not only determine the party’s tally but also have an impact on the 2026 assembly elections when the electorate in both states will vote to elect a new chief minister.

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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